Obama sits down with David Letterman - should Merkel take notes?

President Obama made a smart move by going on the Late Show with David Letterman, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel could benefit from something similar… if only she could pull it off.

Kevin Lamarque
Seated with talk show host David Letterman, U.S. President Barack Obama makes an appearance on the 'Late Show with David Letterman' at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City, Tuesday.

Thanks to a heads up from the local news last night, I got to watch President Barack Obama on the "Late Show with David Letterman." I figured if it was big enough to make the nightly news I should watch, but I didn't expect much more than staged jokes, dull conversation, and campaign messaging.

But after the initial chitchat ended – and President Obama had the audience on his side after cracking a joke about not wanting to see host David Letterman naked – I understood why the president went on air with the late night host. I also wondered whether it was something German Chancellor Angela Merkel should consider when running for re-election next year.

The setting is perfect: It's free television time on a national level and gives the incumbent a big platform for presenting both his ideas and his personality. I didn't expect Mr. Letterman to let Obama talk about the national debt for more than three minutes, let alone the gridlock in Congress for almost four, but that's what he did.

For Obama it was a way to reach voters who might not be interested enough in politics to follow election coverage closely but enjoy their late night talk shows. His choice of words might have been simple – referring to "two wars on a credit card" when talking about the national debt – but his message, peppered as it was with stories about his children and the White House garden, stuck.

Germany has already adopted the US debate culture, so why not appear on talk shows too? Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder tried that when he appeared on the popular evening game show "Wetten, dass...?" ("Wanna bet this...?) in 1999, but it didn't really catch on with other politicians. Last year Chancellor Merkel turned down an offer to appear on the show, which was hosted by the popular Thomas Gottschalk until the end of last season.

Maybe it's because Merkel is not quite the hip politician Obama is and likes to keep her personal life private. But even though German elections are never as personality-driven as they are in the US, the candidates still need to appeal to voters, and this is an ideal way to do that. 

Take former Minister of Defense Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who stepped down in 2011 after the disclosure that he had plagiarized his doctoral thesis. Even in the middle of that controversy, he remained one of the most popular politicians in Germany, partly because he knew how to spin the headlines with well-crafted appearances, showing up in an AC/DC T-shirt at a concert or getting his picture taken at tourist hub Times Square on a trip to the US.

Even if Merkel does not want to trade personal stories with Letterman like Obama did, appearing on a carefully chosen entertainment TV show and sharing just a little bit of about her personal life while going long on economic policy and government spending could be an easy way to get the message out to the average Joe – or in this case, Otto Normalverbraucher.

Rumors are that Mr. Gottschalk is planning a comeback with a show airing on public broadcaster ARD. That could be a nice match.

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